WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals have had a brash, audacious manager, Davey Johnson, who said, “World Series or bust.” They tried a bland middle manager, Matt Williams, who pasted sampler slogans on the wall. Finally, they hired the coolest manager ever, Dusty Baker, who invented the high-five, had his own vineyard and said if the Nats won the World Series, it would be because it was “already written.”
Now, under rookie Manager Dave Martinez, the Nats are going with fun. With bonding. With goofy. With facing your problems at getting over the postseason hump by having coaches ride camels onto the practice field on a Wednesday — “hump day.” With the sort of wacky tricks that Martinez watched as a coach under Joe Maddon with the 2008 pennant-winning Tampa Bay Rays and 2016 world champion Chicago Cubs. Except now it’s Martinez who is cooking up the pranks and competitions.
Here at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, it’s Camp Happy for the Nats.
On March 16, this form of group sports psychology had its spring apotheosis as the Nats held a surprise golf contest with the whole team, some of whom had never swung a club, shooting at a blind target 100 yards away over four fences, two sidewalks and a bullpen. Their sight line: a bunch of balloons in the sky.
“Heckling is allowed and encouraged. No silence, please,” Nats third base coach Bob Henley, dressed as a Masters caddie, bellowed through a megaphone. “Five teams. Every member of the winning team will have jackets made for them, given at the end of spring training. There is no second place. Everybody else is a loser.”
The team, gathered in its daily Circle of Trust, sang “Happy Birthday” to rookie Spencer Kieboom, who got the honor of hitting the first ball. Trick ball: It exploded.
After each shot, players listened for a distant air horn, telling them whether the shot had landed close enough to the bull’s eye for one point, two points or the coveted “three horner.”
“I can’t hit it any sweeter than that,” Daniel Murphy said, ball in flight. “I like that launch angle,” chirped one teammate. “Good spin rate,” said another.
Sean Doolittle tried to figure out whether he was a left-handed or right-handed golfer. Enny Romero whiffed his first two swings. The most awful shots, hopping toward an impenetrable fence 40 yards away, were, of course, given the most sarcastic optimistic shouts of “Gotta go! Get through! Roll out!” or “Hit the cart path!”
Shanks, headed toward about 50 defenseless fans in the kill zone, elicited yells of “Duck!” or “I’ll sign your glove.” Reliever Brandon Kintzler swung and accidentally threw his club 100 feet over a fence into the bullpen (naturally). Then, knowing no better, he ran directly in front of the range to retrieve his club.
A screaming skull by Reid Brignac ricocheted off a metal post and, in a blink, flew back at the players, where Tanner Roark nonchalantly snagged it barehanded.
After 45 minutes, the score 26-26 between the two best teams, Joe Ross pulled out a clutch “three-horner” to make a winner of Max Scherzer’s team.
“They loved it. Max was high-fiving. He likes the hardware,” Martinez said. Next year, “maybe hard hats for the fans,” the manager added.
Those winners’ jackets will say “Masters of the Circle” and, instead of Masters green, the color will be — come on, you know — “camel,” Martinez said.
It’s all about that Hump.
I enjoy this stuff. When you’ve tried cocky, intense and hip, why not fun? But I worry about it, too. If the Nats win the World Series, as Sports Illustrated just predicted (again), do I have to cover games next year in a bathrobe and slippers?
While Johnson and Baker told some of the majors’ best tall tales, and Williams tried to say nothing but say it civilly, Martinez has now taken the whole Nats culture into the world of “everything is positive” and “positivity” and “optimism” and, basically, everything that Washington fans have learned to distrust for a quarter century.
Plenty of teams in several sports have tried such approaches, but Martinez may push the cheerfulness envelope. Just make sure, when you look inside, it isn’t filled with sneezing powder. Even if it is, somehow it will be connected to planting victorious thoughts, getting to know teammates as people or visualizing great success. Recently, the Nats practiced their walk-off home run trots and home plate celebrations. Honest. “Got to be prepared,” Martinez said.
In other words, prepared to win.
This approach worked for the Cubs in 2016, when they broke a 108-year title drought. For Maddon and Martinez, together a decade, this isn’t a goof. Right or not, it’s a philosophy.
Ironically, the team that practices on the opposite side of the same complex, the Houston Astros, really is happy. Their 25-foot-high logo says “2017 World Champions.” The Nats have an equally huge logo with their curly “W” but no titles yet. Nonetheless, the Nats plan to act happy until the real thing comes along.
Boomboxes, with tunes picked by a Nat of the day, play loudly during tedious drills or batting practice on back fields. If you don’t want to play in exhibition games because, at 34, you have a history of injuries while running the bases or diving for groundballs, then you can skip almost the whole exhibition season like Ryan Zimmerman. He’s healthy, happy and playing in “controlled” games against minor leaguers, getting all the at-bats he needs but not flinging himself around.
“If they’re tired, sit out an inning. I like that, especially with older guys,” Martinez said.
Here, the veterans come close to setting their own training agendas. They get their work finished early during short, intense practices and sometimes leave exhibition games in the sixth inning in a total-lineup substitution. If you’re coming back from offseason surgery, like Murphy, the Nats implore you, “Don’t rush.”
To Martinez’s eye, “Matt Wieters looks great. Matt Adams looks unbelievable. I told Trea Turner, don’t be afraid to bunt for a hit. For him, a bunt is a triple.”
After a 10-0 exhibition loss full of defensive misplays, Martinez said the game was an anomaly in a generally well-played spring. Anyway, regardless of outcomes, he plans to have the same rule after any defeat in the regular season: “Wait 30 minutes, then turn the music on.” Win and pump it up right away.
If the Nats fail to win the somewhat tougher National League East this season, or get eliminated in yet another Game 5 in the first round of the playoffs, you are going to hear a lot of camel jokes aimed at Martinez and his team. Dromedary humor will take its place beside, “Where’s my ring?”
But spring training offers a kind of (extremely) temporary immunity to cynicism. For now, the Nats get to try to win the exhibition season championship of fun. If it works out, the season will be even more of a kick. If not, more humps and lumps.